Dismantling Gandhism: Remarks on Ambedkar's "What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables"

Shreya Ghosh

What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables is a book-length study of the politics of the Indian National Congress by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar which was first published in 1945 by Thacker & Company. To put it in a nutshell, the book undertakes a detailed investigation of the results of the Elections to the Provincial Legislatures which took place in February 1937 under the Government of India Act 1935. Dr. Ambedkar offers an insightful account of the lack of political privileges enjoyed by the Scheduled Caste candidates (over the course of the election) in stark contrast to the powerful, bourgeois-dominated Congress party. The work also aims at dismantling the misconceived popularity of Mahatma Gandhi as a “benefactor” of the Dalit population. The book was included in Volume 9 of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches published in 1991 by the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra. Subsequently, more editions were published by publishers like Samyak Prakashani and others.

At the fag end of the colonial rule in India and with the onset of the first declaration of independence, the Indian National Congress assumed a strictly bourgeois perspective regarding the policy of national integration. Increased demands for a separate electorate that would unequivocally represent members of the Scheduled Caste were taken with a pinch of salt by the Congress party. Mr. Gandhi, as Dr. Ambedkar in his work Mr. Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables informs, expressed his undisguised disapproval of the proposition that facilitated the greater autonomy of the non-conformist Hindu caste by launching a fast unto death.

To unravel the larger measures of repression adopted by the Congress against the Untouchables and their demands for greater political representation, Dr. Ambedkar examines the circumstances and the results of the Elections to the Provincial Legislatures in India which took place in February 1937. The results of the election, as Dr. Ambedkar states in his work What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, clearly depicted the unchallenged popularity of the Congress Party which captured 139 seats out of 151 reserved for the Scheduled Castes. The Independent Labour Party organised by Dr. Ambedkar managed a pittance comprising 12 seats only. The startling success of the Congress is what Sekhar Bandopadhyay describes as a “Brahman-bourgeois Congress” way of “appropriating Dalit politics during the last phase of the colonial rule” (894). Also, Dr. Ambedkar challenges the pretensions of the Congress Party as fundamentally representative of a unified India that accords equal respect to all the caste groups by citing the election results of 1937. Dr. Ambedkar asserts that during the elections “Untouchables in almost every constituency fought against the Congress by putting up their candidates” and that “the majority of 78 seats won by the Congress were won with the help of Hindu votes and that they do not therefore in any way represent the Scheduled Castes”(What Congress and Gandhi 13). The Congress Party, since its very early days with Annie Besant as the President, reserved a polemical view of the non-conformist Hindu castes. Citing fragments of the opinions provided by the erstwhile leaders, Ambedkar, in his aforementioned work, shows how the Congress claiming to include the Scheduled Castes in its framework of improving the socio-economic and political welfare of the common masses was excessively hypocritical. For instance, Dr. Ambedkar goes on to present excerpts from The Uplift of the Depressed Classes penned by Annie Besant in which she argues that the Untouchable in India is “a large class of people, ignorant, unclean in language and habits” (What Congress and Gandhi 21).

The Congress party’s parochial opinion of the “reserved categories” demonstrates a strong situation of power imbalance residing at the heart of the political battle waged by the privileged and the impoverished castes of the nation. Other leaders, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, for instance, provided a disparagingly religious side to the conflict for survival that was being summarily faced by members of the “reserved castes.” As Manjit Singh states, “real opposition to the social reform movement came from individuals like Tilak, Lajpat Rai, Pal and Annie Besant etc., who identified nationalism with Hinduism” (867). Tilak constructed the rhetoric of Hinduism or Hindutva that derived validation from a sense of fanatical devotion to religious heritages such as temples or famous places of pilgrimage. The construct jeopardized the position of the Untouchables, who were by custom debarred from gaining access to temples and places of religious worship in the society. The so-called inferior caste groups now earned a status outside the “premise of Hindutva” (868) and this became one contributing factor towards entrenching an attitude of fierce denial to the importunities of the ghettoized caste groups for clear political recognition.

(In pic: Ambedkar and Gandhi, along with other British and Indian leaders, attending the Second round Table Conference in London in 1931. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Leaders of the time were, thus, viciously gripped by a partisan mindset that denied the underprivileged castes the opportunities they sought for flourishing into natural and upgraded, dignified citizens of the country. Amongst the confessed, iconized, political deities [my italics], who deliberately sought to stoke the fuels of caste-based discrimination in the socio-economic and political sectors of India, is the Father of the Nation himself. According to Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi was a national leader who invested great emphasis on his reputation as the saviour of the Untouchables, way more than his other popular identity as the champion of Swaraj or the protagonist of Ahimsa at the Second Round Table Conference. Yet, this sort of view is essentially erroneous and painstaking evidence in favour of the impression’s invalidity has been provided by none other than the eminent philosopher and political activist himself. The role played by Gandhi in organising movements that provided a huge impetus to the freedom struggle in India has already been innumerably documented in the annals of Indian history. From helming the Agitation against the Rowlatt Act to founding the Satyagrah Ashram at Ahmedabad, Gandhi remained the ideal image of a dauntless yet disciplined leader whose sole religion in life was to fight for the complete swaraj of an enslaved nation. Yet, as Ambedkar states in his work What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, there are several anachronistic sides to this dignified leader, prime amongst them being his aversion to dedicating himself towards the complete dissolution of caste barriers.

In this context, Dr. Ambedkar cites the example of the Bardoli programme which was ostensibly organised by the Congress party under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi for the uplift of the Untouchables. Yet, the programme was not aimed at the removal of untouchability as a social practice. The programme, in the opinion of Dr. Ambedkar, “openly recognised untouchability” and did no more than “provide separate wells and separate schools for the Untouchables” (What Congress and Gandhi 303). Moreover, the Subcommittee appointed to command the programme consisted of members who were entirely ignorant of the harsh living conditions and adverse economic status of the citizens belonging to the “reserved categories” and this in result offered little consolation except for the perpetuation of a hostile attitude towards the “Children of India’s Ghetto.” Swami Shraddhanand (a missionary from the Arya Samaj), whom Ambedkar claims to be the sole person who had any genuine interest in the poignant situation of the ostracized caste groups, was forced to resign in the face of Gandhi’s immense sway over the policy framing attributes of the Indian National Congress. The programme went on to become a clear manifesto of the Congress’s sharp apathy towards the Untouchables because the initiatives taken by it and the attitude meted out to those who dared to be devoted and sincere in their concern for the underprivileged proved to be grossly inadequate. A meagre amount of funds was reserved for the implementation of the programme and some serious crises emerged out of this paucity of financial resources. In addition to it, Gandhi remained oblivious to any important ordeals arising out of the discussed deficiencies of the programme. His hostility towards Swami Shraddhanand, who clamoured for reforms within the programme itself, brought to light the entire depth of the shallowness that characterized efforts for the alleviation of the downtrodden social conditions of the Untouchables.

In the chapter titled “Gandhism and the Doom of the Untouchables,” Dr. Ambedkar further analyses the regressive ideologies propounded by the Mahatma that premised themselves upon obscure arguments of eastern mysticism and spirituality. Gandhi’s ideologies championed an orthodox and essentially conservative model of the Hindu society. He believed that “to destroy the caste system and adopt Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation which was the soul of the caste system. The hereditary principle is eternal. To change is to create disorder” (What Congress and Gandhi 341). Gandhi argued in favour of the existing order of domination and subordination that had characterized the Hindu society since its earliest beginnings. The reason he forwarded for his arguments was that if the labourers decided to initiate revolts against their employers it would involve a great amount of unnecessary violence. Violence, in Gandhian rhetoric, symbolizes blasphemy of herculean proportions. Better, the existing system of pain and impoverishment should continue to be the fate of those who have been for ages on the losing side of a war for social justice.

In his just criticism of the bigoted Gandhian ideologies, Dr. Ambedkar argues that Gandhi had no “passion for economic equality” and that the idolized “Mahatma” of the Nation did not want to alienate “the hen that lays the golden eggs” (What Congress and Gandhi 347). The alternative provided by Gandhi to feuds between employers and employees over the acquisition of human rights by the latter is simply, as Dr. Ambedkar states, that the owners of property should declare themselves the “Trustees of the poor” (What Congress and Gandhi 348). Inherent within the Gandhian outlook of a nation that is meek, subservient and commendably aware of its own conscious, socially ascribed class positions is an explicit distrust of modern machinery and technologies. Gandhi viewed the advent of an age of modern machines and technologies as seedlings sown for another instance of western imperialism where the race for materialistic gains would obliterate yet another nation. Dr. Ambedkar, however, argues that the distress caused by machinery and modern civilisation arises from the social organisation where the benefits of technologies are concentrated in the hands of moneyed few while others are distinctly deprived of its assistance. Hence, the challenge presented by Dr. Ambedkar requires the allocation of equal benefits to all the citizens of the country irrespective of their caste affiliations. In this regard, Dr. Ambedkar puts forth a democratic ideal in favour of a consolidated India where the privileges of modernity and culture would easily be accessible to every citizen in the nation.

In presenting a justified and coherent ideal of how modern India should be organized in terms of its social, economic aspects, Dr. Ambedkar never loses sight of the impediments that the Gandhian way of life presents to the realization of his ideal. According to Ambedkar, Gandhi’s social ideal was based either on the model of caste system or that of Varna. Furthermore, given the influence and popularity of Mahatma Gandhi as a veritable messiah of a Nation writhing in the throes of slavery and colonial servitude, the appeal of adopting an intrinsically mystified and rustic view of Indian life was incredibly strong for the masses. Throughout his career as a political activist championing the cause of the downtrodden, Ambedkar remained strongly opposed to the victory of mysticism over pure reason. He straightforwardly advocated the emergence of modern machinery as tools that would liberate mankind from the brutish condition and open up a world of possibilities for those who have inhabited recesses of darkness and deprivation for the greater part of a civilisation’s lifespan.

Akash Singh, in his article, titled “Gandhi and Ambedkar: Irreconcilable Differences?” describes how Ambedkar denounced the prejudice inherent within Gandhi’s politics. From a BBC interview held in 1995, he quotes Ambedkar’s vehement answer in reply to the question of whether Gandhi was an orthodox Hindu, as in the following: "Yes, he was absolutely an orthodox Hindu. He was never a reformer. He has no dynamics in him...All this talk about untouchability was just to make the untouchables drawn into the Congress; that was one thing. And secondly, he wanted that the untouchables would not oppose his movement of Swaraj. I don’t think beyond this that he had any motive of uplift." (Ambedkar qtd. in Singh, 418).

Thus, in light of the above analysis, it can be safely stated that the Indian National Congress comprising elite leaders who remained aloof from the harsh reality of the struggles faced by the Untouchables was more of a detriment to the radical reformation of caste-based atrocities and privations embedded within the structure of the Hindu society. The demand for separate electorates raised by Dr. Ambedkar that could, in turn, provide exclusive representation to the Scheduled Castes in the Provincial Legislatures was rejected by the Congress and, in particular, by Gandhi because it opened up startling possibilities of dismantling the traditional structures of power and Brahminical supremacy. Thus, Congress and Mr. Gandhi did great harm to the cause of the Untouchables.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, B.R. Mr. Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables. Samyak Prakashan, 2012.

-------------------.What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. Samyak Prakashan, 2012..

Bandopadhyay, Sekhar. “Transfer of Power and the Crisis of Dalit Politics in India, 1945-47.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 34, no. 4 (Oct. 2000), 893-942. https://www.jstor.org/stable/313135. Accessed 1 March 2020.

Singh, Akash. “Gandhi and Ambedkar: Irreconcilable Differences?” International Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 18, no. 3 (Dec. 2014), 413-449. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24713655. Accessed 1 March 2020.

Singh, Manjit. “Untouchables Recognised and Betrayed (1917-1923).” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress,vol. 40 (1979), 867-875. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44142038. Accessed 1 March 2020.

Author Information

Shreya Ghosh studies English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. As far as her research interests are concerned, she is enthusiastic about investigating the social conditions of the twentieth century India and the effects of Westernization, along with cultural imperialism, upon the political ideologies of the postcolonial India. She is also interested in Victorian culture and Gothic fiction.

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